How a Handful of Pro-Charter Billionaires Flooded Oakland's School Board Elections With Cash 

'I think all the money the pro-charter groups are spending reveals how worried they are about losing control.'

click to enlarge Two independent-expenditure committees with ties to charter-school groups have spent nearly half-a-million dollars on three Oakland school-board candidates: James Harris, Huber Trenado, and Jumoke Hinton Hodge.
  • Two independent-expenditure committees with ties to charter-school groups have spent nearly half-a-million dollars on three Oakland school-board candidates: James Harris, Huber Trenado, and Jumoke Hinton Hodge.

If it were just a matter of raising money from parents, teachers, and community members, then school-board candidates James Harris, Huber Trenado, and Jumoke Hinton Hodge's financial advantage over their opponents would be minimal. For example, the incumbent board chairman Harris has raised $11,836 from individual contributors for his re-election this year. That's not much more than Chris Jackson, his challenger, who has scraped together $9,622.

But Harris, Trenado, and Hinton Hodge benefit from two independent-expenditure committees funded by super-wealthy charter-school advocates, which have raised millions since 2014.

These committees are on track to spend about half-a-million dollars to help Harris and Hinton Hodge keep their seats on the board, and to help Trenado unseat Roseann Torres.

Critics worry, however, that this "outside money" distorts Oakland's school-board races.

"It's shocking to me how much they're spending to get these specific candidates elected," said Kim Davis, a parent whose kids attend Oakland public schools. "This is not a level playing field. More money means more mailers, more people knocking on doors, and more people making phone calls."

Shanthi Gonzales, who was elected to the school board in 2014 to represent District Six, noted that a "typical school board race in years past was one where a candidate wouldn't have to raise more than twenty-thousand, max."

But in 2012, Gonzales says the nonprofit organization Great Oakland Public Schools began raising and spending tens of thousands of dollars to support candidates who will advance its goals of growing the number of charters and providing them with greater access to publicly-funded resources. As a result, GO Public Schools changed the calculus of school-board elections and unleashed an avalanche of money, which other groups haven't matched, and that dwarfs the sums that candidates can raise by themselves.

"They have relationships with corporate titans all over the country," Gonzales said of GO Public Schools. "That's why the school board has become a much more high-dollar affair."

According to campaign-finance records, the two committees supporting Harris, Trenado, and Hinton Hodge received most of their funding from a few billionaires, who have played key roles backing the charter-school industry.

So far, the two committees — Families and Educators for Public Education, which was set up by GO Public Schools, and the Parent Teacher Alliance, run by the California Charter Schools Association — have spent $421,906 to support Harris, Trenado, and Hinton Hodge.

The result is that, for every dollar spent to support Jackson, $17 have been spent to support Harris.

Trenado's advantage over Torres in the District Five race would be slight without the support of the two pro-charter school committees. With their support, however, Trenado is benefitting from thirteen times more money than what is being spent on Torres.

In a press release issued earlier this month, GO Public Schools characterized their IE committee as a "grassroots campaign," due to the fact that "more than 280 people have made over 570 donations" to fill its coffers, which in 2016 totaled about $137,000.

According to GO Public Schools Executive Director Ash Solar, over one-hundred parents, teachers, and community members were part of their endorsement process. GO Public Schools also has 170 volunteers walking precincts and making phone calls.

"In fact, as evidence of the depth of community support, more than twice as many people have donated to GO's election campaign as to all of the candidates GO didn't endorse combined," Solar said in a statement.

But campaign-finance records tell a different story. Approximately two-thirds of all the money contributed to the Families and Educators for Public Education committee that GO sponsors came from just three individuals:

Wall Street billionaire and former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg gave the committee $300,000 last week.

Silicon Valley billionaire investor Arthur Rock gave the committee $98,900 over the past two years, and T. Gary Rogers, who made his fortune by selling the Dreyer's Grand Ice Cream company to global food giant Nestlé contributed $99,800 over the same period.

The next seven-largest funders of the committee — including the California Charter Schools Association — provided another quarter of its total financing.

In other words, ten people, or about 2 percent of the contributors, provided 88 percent of all its cash since 2014.

As of last week, the GO Public Schools committee had spent $115,810 to support Harris, Trenado, and Hinton Hodge.

The Express attempted to contact Rogers through his family foundation, which also provides much of GO Public Schools' funding. Dana Wellhausen, director of grants and evaluation for Rogers' foundation, wrote in an email that she could not disclose his contact information or pass along a message.

A secretary at Rock's investment company in San Francisco told the Express he "never does media interviews."

The other IE committee pouring money into the Oakland school-board races, the Parent Teacher Alliance, is sponsored by the California Charter Schools Association. Most of its money also comes from a handful of billionaires, including Netflix CEO Reed Hastings; members of the Walton family, which owns Walmart; real estate and insurance magnate Eli Broad; and Doris Fisher, whose family's wealth comes from the Gap clothing company. None of these individuals or their representatives returned calls or emails seeking comment.

The Parent Teacher Alliance has already spent $121,230 to support Harris' re-election campaign. This is ten-times the amount that Harris has been able to raise himself. Similarly, the Families and Educators for Public Education committee has expended $50,472 supporting him.

Another IE set up by labor unions and the Alliance of Californians for Community Empowerment plans to pay for ads and door-knocking to help Jackson fight back against Harris. But the committee, named Oakland Working Families, reported spending only $1,451 so far to support Jackson.

Gabriel Haaland, SEIU 1021's political coordinator, characterized the amounts of money being injected into Oakland's school-board races by pro-charter groups as part of the post-Citizen's United reality, a reference to the U.S. Supreme Court case that allows affluent donors, corporations, and other groups to spend unlimited amounts of money on elections, so long as they don't directly communicate with the politicians they're supporting.

The Oakland Education Association, a union that represents teachers in Oakland's public schools, also has plans to independently support some of the candidates running against Harris, Trenado, and Hinton Hodge. But OEA President Trish Gorham said her union won't spend more than $40,000 on all the races combined.

Kharyshi Wiginton has perhaps the biggest financial disadvantage this year. Having raised $2,315 in individual contributions to run for the District Three seat, she's relying heavily on volunteers. Incumbent Hinton Hodge has raised more than double that of Wiginton, giving her a small advantage in a race that could be decided by who can muster the best ground game. But with $102,806 being independently spent by the GO Public Schools and California Charter Schools Association IE committees to support her, Hinton Hodge benefits from 48-times more cash than Wiginton.

"This is a ridiculous amount of money," Wiginton said. But she argued that it's not insurmountable, touting her high-profile endorsements from California Superintendent of Schools Tom Torlakson, the Alameda County Democratic Party, and the Alameda Labor Council.

"I think all the money the pro-charter groups are spending reveals how worried they are about losing control," she said.


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